In 2016, when Donald J. Trump was campaigning to be elected the 45th president of the United States, he made a pledge to “end the opioid epidemic in America.”
Two months after taking office, Trump repeated his pledge at a late-March “listening session” at the White House on the opioid crisis which killed more than 50,000 Americans in 2015. There, he heard testimony from parents who had lost children to opiate addiction.
In March, Trump signed an executive order creating a Presidential Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. According to Trump’s signed order, the commission is designed to:
- Identify existing federal dollars to combat drug addiction, including opioids;
- Assess availability and access to addiction treatment centers and overdose reversal and identify under-served areas;
- Measure the effectiveness of state prescription drug monitoring programs;
- Evaluate public messaging campaigns about prescription and illegal opioids, and identify best practices for drug prevention.
Trump had been viewed by many as a potentially valuable ally in the fight against addiction, since his own family has been impacted by the disease. Trump’s older brother, Fred Jr., died of alcoholism-related causes at the age of 42 in 1981. The president seemed to validate that view with his public statements, first as a candidate and then as president.
However, Trump’s stated concern was not reflected in the budget proposal the White House released in late May, which would reduce funding for addiction treatment, research and prevention. Of all the proposed cuts in the budget, the most damaging would be the president’s 10-year plan to reduce spending for Medicaid, which provides coverage to an estimated three in 10 adults with opioid addiction.
Among those most vocally frustrated by the budget proposal were the parents who had shared their stories with the president.
More discouraging news came with the House passage of a Republican health care bill that would also severely shrink Medicaid coverage, and allow states to weaken a requirement that private insurance cover addiction treatment. A Congressional Budget Office report said a patient’s cost of substance abuse services could increase by thousands of dollars a year in states that chose to weaken coverage requirements.
Earlier this year, former, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and liberal Democratic commentator Van Jones, posted an opinion piece on TheHill.com. The three, who now work for a group founded by Jones called Advocates for Opiate Recovery, urged the new president to follow through on his campaign promise to end the opioid epidemic in America.
Seen by many as unlikely political allies, Gingrich, Kennedy and Jones called on Congress and the president to put aside party politics in order to make a bipartisan effort to tackle the problems. They urged Trump to take action in three ways: changing policies that create barriers to treatment, reforming criminal justice to favor treatment over jail, and ensuring that funding is available to treat addiction as the public health emergency that it is.
Gingrich, Kennedy and Jones also cited medication assisted treatment (MAT) — the combination of behavioral counseling and recovery medication – as the best solution to combat opiate addiction.
Today, data shows that only three out of every 100 people living with opioid addiction are receiving this type of treatment, which has been endorsed by medical organizations. Numbers also show that MAT makes economic sense: Studies show that every dollar spent on treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs and $7 in criminal justice costs.
As Congress continues to debate legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, the millions of Americans impacted by addiction are waiting to see whether Trump does what is necessary to provide sufficient resources to make a difference in one of the most urgent problems facing the country, and live up to his campaign promise.